Hello, is this thing on? Ye-es, I know the Doctor Who Companion has been offline for a few days – apologies – but to make up for this, we’ve compiled an extra-long collective review of the latest Series 12 episode, Can You Hear Me?.
In his review, Jonathan Appleton said:
“Can You Hear Me? was an episode that’s unlikely to convert many critics of the current version of the show. The jumping between disparate locations, the use of the companions, and the suspicion no doubt harboured by some that a worthy theme is being inserted into the drama all combined to make that unrealistic. But this felt to me like one of Chibnall’s best in his time in charge: a story that kept me guessing, skillfully brought to life on the screen, with enough different elements to hold my interest and, best of all, some proper old-fashioned Doctor Who scares. As Zellin put it, a good game.”
What did the rest of the DWC think? Let’s find out…!
There’s a theme here. Can’t quite put my finger on it.
The ‘presenting issue’ was, as it often is, disturbed sleep and nightmares. One of the things done well was the difference between how the nightmares affected the ‘ordinary’ folk and the companions, and how that is used to show rather than tell their character development.
Tahira and Tibo naturally were terrified, carried their fear into their waking lives, and tried to lock the fear out: the ‘la la la, can’t hear you’ approach. The companions all knew they were dreaming, and rather than letting the fear take over, they observed, learning what the dream was telling them.
What comes out from the nightmares is that everyone was running away– Tahira from parents’ death, possibly subsequent abuse (‘they like it more when you struggle’). Well-acted like PTSD survivors I’ve known in my job.
Buom Tihngang played well Tibo’s familiar strategy of running away from accepting help as that would mean admitting he needed it.
Graham responds to ‘Grace’ saying he should have saved her; but he knows it is his nightmare and the real Grace would never have said that. Walsh, still the best actor, sells Graham’s decision to stop running away from his cancer fear, his survivor guilt.
Interesting that, as the youngest, Ryan’s fear is the climate collapse from Orphan 55; but he knows the flames are symbolic; acknowledges them but doesn’t panic. But behind the flames is his fear that his friends will grow old without him, and you know he’s listening. Ryan is growing up into responsibility – ‘Look at me; I’m not laughing.’ Tosin’s acting is improving too, thinking through the maths as Doctor does the quantum lock infodump. His visual humour in the background (like in Arachnids) should be used more.
Yaz was always ‘running away from everyone, including yourself.’ Nice directing and editing which builds up to the reveal about that memory. The token 50p showed her ‘moving on’ rather than ‘running away.’ It was good to see the PC loved her job, that she remembered Yaz’s name. Maybe it’s not realistic, but we all need a bit of hope and faith in humanity. I also enjoyed the sister relationship – not often explored in Who before. More ‘show don’t tell.’
The Doctor’s running away was the least comfortable – a problem that will crop up again at the end. The Fifth Doctor was famously ‘on the run from your own people’, but the Thirteenth was avoiding dealing with the call home. She could have popped back to Gallfrey when they went off to catch up with loved ones. She didn’t.
‘Reach out and touch somebody’s hand.’
We’ve complained that the companions have no presence, and no deep connection with the Doctor – which is why she doesn’t notice they’re not there. Whether that repeated joke works depends on just how true you think it is. It has been well-covered elsewhere that the ‘still socially awkward’ scene was badly misjudged. Maybe there is a reason she doesn’t touch her companions, or have any empathy, but it needs to change. She can’t keep pushing them – and thereby us – away forever. Some of us are hanging on by our fingernails.
The theme of running away from people, contact, ‘issues’ or potential help grew naturally from the presenting issue. Vincent and the Doctor was about living with mental health difficulties; this was about dealing with them, and Chibs handled it a bit more subtly than we suspected he could (or was that Charlene James’ influence?). And while we’re on Vincent, yes, Tony Curran was exceptional compared to any of the actors in this, but that makes it a lot easier for real people to identify with them; we’re not all tortured genius artists, but most of us are more vulnerable than we admit. Ryan persuading his friend to stop pushing people away didn’t feel crowbarred in – companions are supposed to learn from the Doctor, Yaz the adventurer, Ryan the healer. And Tibo is right about the self service checkouts – ‘No, it’s not just you.’
‘Please do not throw [bits of] hands at me.’
They had fun with the digital effects, didn’t they? The splendidly creepy Ian Gelder was way above the material, and managed to keep menace and enigmatic edge through the far too SLOW talky bits. His speech about humans doing harm to themselves by dwelling on their guilt/fear/inadequacies reflected the theme of the sermon I heard the same morning; believe you’re salt and light, even when you feel like you’re mud and darkness.
Other thumbs ups:
- The lifts going up and down behind where the TARDIS lands.
- The different lighting in the TARDIS – they’re getting much better at using the space, shooting from different angles, through different foreground items.
- Good varied sets – nice contrasts and colours of lighting. Nice scraped wall where monster fingernails dragged. Nice touch that the zoom on the viewer was controlled by running FINGERS through filaments.
- Little highlights of humour to lift the gloom. Walsh is still funny. But the TARDIS telepathic circuit interface has gone badly downhill since Clara used it!
- Zellin’s references to the past, and the Aleppo hospital reminded me of Season 19’s Castrovalva, though its corridors reminded me more of Orphan 55; were they just the spa set re-dressed?
- The Doctor literally ‘pulling their fingers out’ was gross but funny. And invigorated them to come in guns blazing, the Doctor – as she always does – turning the baddies weapon against them; humans’ fear converted to control. The whole story could have been grown from the ‘daisiest daisy’ and ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ speeches: ‘Yes you ARE ready for today.’ Like Praxeus, this one was feeding the right wolf. ‘Magnificent’ isn’t quite ‘indomitable,’ but is trying. And like that iconic speech, delivered on a space station. I’d find it easier to say Jodie was really being the Doctor here if she hadn’t let Graham down so badly at the end. ‘The motivational speech needs a bit of work.’
On the other hand…
- Of course, it’s a trap – like the Nine luring the Eighth Doctor, Liv, and Helen. And like Helen persuading the Doctor to let the Sonomancer out, naturally the companion persuades the Doctor to free the prisoner. Doesn’t she ever learn?
- The animation was more Python’s Meaning of Life than Hitchhikers’ Guide. It looked cheap, in contrast to the cinematic splendour of this season. Contrast Wet Heather showing Bill the universe in the Pilot. But yes, it was better than just talking heads.
- Halle Berry lookalike had no charisma, and that slooooowwwwww scene in the street intended to sell the threat of Big Bad Evil feeding on Earth’s nightmares forever came over like two drunk workmates trying to decide whether to go for a curry or a kebab.
I can count the number of Chibs stories I like on the fingers off one hand, but this is one of them. Can You Hear Me? did some things so very well that it was a terrible disappointment when it fell so spectacularly at the last hurdle. I’ll give it 3 ½ fingers out of five.
“James, are you sure you want me to use this?”
“Yeah, sorry. I just don’t have time to write anything this week.”
“Yet you somehow found time to throw this together.”
I have sat at my PC for 10 minutes trying to find something to say as a positive opening of a review this episode. I think it has to be that I like the Death Eaters mode of transport for the Immortals (copied from Harry Potter). It was good and ethereal.
And that is it.
I found the dream sequences poorly edited and thus confusing, and I found the cartoon explanation of everything an appalling way to tell a story. It fitted in Fear Her (it was about a young girl’s fears) but here it’s a high-tech, extinction event platform come prison ship; it was bewildering low-tech.
The initial twist of the ‘prisoner’ being let out, echoed for me the line at Fang Rock when the Fourth Doctor said “I’ve made a terrible mistake. I thought I’d locked the enemy out. Instead I’ve locked it in… with us!’‘. Of course, if the Immortal could not release his friend then it was obvious that the Doctor would be able to trap them again. I just did not think it would be so easy.
Finally, I have to said I am fed of all the ‘health’ warning style episodes we are getting. This is Doctor Who, not Dr. Phil!
Final Verdict – episode seven – probably the worst episode yet to feature the current TARDIS crew/fam/crowd/misfits.
Growing up, I remember enjoying the American sitcom, Diff’rent Strokes. The show ran for eight seasons from 1978. It told the adventures of young Arnold (Gary Coleman) and his brother Willis (Todd Bridges). Born in Harlem, they were looked after by wealthy widower Phillip Drummond (Conrad Bain) in a huge Park Avenue house following the death of their mother. It was a popular show, mentioning Arnold’s catchphrase (“Watcha talkin’ ‘bout Willis?”) to anyone of a certain age will evoke a warm, nostalgic glow.
As hilarious as I found the show, there was one part that always niggled me. It was during the last five minutes when kindly Mr. Drummond would put his arm around Arnold and effectively asked him, “What did you learn this week?”
It wasn’t just Diff’rent Strokes that was guilty of this; many Saturday morning cartoons (He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and Thundercats being the two that immediately spring to mind) would regularly use this particular trope. Hardly surprising when you learn that throughout the ’70s and ’80s TV regulators in America insisted all kid’s programmes had some form of educational content. I had tuned in to watch He-Man battle Skeletor. I always found those final scenes annoying and totally out of place with the rest of the story.
Which brings me to this week’s Doctor Who. I was really enjoying this episode. It was exciting and atmospheric. Splitting the companions up and giving them all something to do was effective (and long overdue – one of the strengths of this current series is that it’s attempting to build the companions into actual characters, not just use them as window dressing). The villains were good and seemed to actually have an interesting motive. I loved the animated sequence explaining their back story – it made me wonder if we are due another adaptation of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. And the floating-fingers-into-ears was an idea only Doctor Who would even consider; both silly and sinister.
Then, after 45 or so minutes of fun, atmospheric, and scary drama we are given five minutes that were essentially a lead into the “if you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this program…” voice-over and a caption featuring the number for Action Line.
Not that I have problems with raising awareness about mental health, or providing the Action Line number at the end. If it helps even one person suffering from what can be an incredibly debilitating problem then that’s a good thing. But it was the way the last five minutes repeatedly hit us over the head with “This.Episode.Was.About.Mental.Health” that I took issue with. I was back to those moments in the ’80s when Phillip Drummond would put his arm around Arnold and say “Drugs may seem cool, but you should just say no.”
It feels excessive and is something Doctor Who is becoming increasingly guilty of. Stories allow us to walk in other people’s shoes, experience things we never could experience in real life. They teach us to empathise, consider different points of views. We learn new ideas or learn new ways to see the world from being told the story. The bulk of this episode did just that. The first 40 minutes were much more effective in getting its point across than what we got at the end of the episode, which felt like five minutes of bullet-pointed powerpoint slides.
A horrifying shocker. Not what I expected. Unlike last week’s okay (ish) mixed bag, this one turned out to be an arc-driven-of-sorts classic.
We are once again treated to a pre-titles sequence, which we unfortunately haven’t seen since the recap in Spyfall, Part 2. Opening with the Syrian city Aleppo, 1380, was a mixture of thrills and suspense (à la King’s Landing in Game of Thrones), especially when the panther-like creature appeared from the shadows – yep, that definitely gave me the creeps.
If that weren’t scary enough, take a good look at the immortal god Zellin and his hovering detachable fingers. (Gross!) I thought Ian Gelder was splendid as the main antagonist, especially after voicing the Remnants in The Ghost Monument. Well, isn’t that a coincidence? Both episodes specifically reference the Timeless Child arc, and we also get to see another shocking glimpse of the mysterious figure itself (albeit in the Doctor’s nightmare, with flashbacks of the Master’s voice). Despite Zellin being a separate character, could it be that he has some sort of connection with the Stenza’s creation, or is it all just an intentional coincidence? We may never know, unless something pops up in the two-part finale.
Nightmares are what we face and fear all the time, and there’s always a story to them. That is the case of the Doctor’s three companions returning home to Sheffield, and resuming their normal lives individually. For Graham, wasn’t it wonderful but bittersweet to see Grace appearing once again in his visions? An unexpected cameo is always touching.
For Ryan, “I got chips, though!” It’s nice to see him catching up with his best friend Tibo, especially when the Dregs briefly appeared in his nightmare. And for Yaz, an emotional and heartbreaking backstory on her mental health and how she became inspired to become a police officer; thoroughly developed. Not to mention catching up with her younger sister who can now cook.
To be very honest, the resolution was indeed too rushed. Could’ve benefited from a few more minutes to expand upon the final showdown with Zellin and Rakaya. But that wasn’t the only issue. I also felt rather uncomfortable with the Doctor’s “socially awkward” response to Graham’s anxieties about his cancer returning; definitely mischaracterised in the script, thus making her portrayal out of character.
On a positive note, I absolutely loved the the animated segment. Literally illustrates the backstory of how Rakaya became imprisoned between the two planets, basic and artistic. Reminds me a lot of when I covered a bit of Warli art at school, over a decade ago. I hope they do more of these in the future, but only when necessary to the plotting.
Now that it ended on another cliffhanger-of-sorts, I’ve no doubt that we may be treated to another mention of the Timeless Child. Or perhaps… the Lone Cyberman?
I know I said I wouldn’t watch another episode this season, but the pull of Doctor Who is strong and I cannot escape its magnetron. I thought Can You Hear Me? was by far the best of the Chibnall era episodes so far. It had a story, it was well shot, it held my attention and, in spite of there being several messages as usual, it didn’t preach too much. Ian Gelder gave a strong performance as Zellin and the idea of the TARDIS crew (ain’t writing ‘Fam’ — argh, I just did!) freeing a criminal from prison was effective. I wondered why THERE ARE SUCH BIG TYPEFACES to announce the locations, like SYRIA in the 13th Century, and agree that Tahira didn’t react appropriately to the TARDIS: Katarina thought it was a temple and the Doctor was a god. Having said all this, the story ran out after 40 minutes and we were back to the soap opera sagas of the private lives of the most uninteresting companions ever to appear in Doctor Who. I thought the director did wonders getting Tosin Cole to give some sort of a performance, which was almost passable. I wonder what the casual viewer made of Yasmin’s backstory and if they could sort out which of the people in her past life were family or friends: I can’t remember what happened to her sister and I am a fan. I wondered if the closeness of Ryan’s friendship with his depressed buddy was hinting that they had some sort of romantic relationship – I imagine not, since we weren’t beaten over the head with it as usual. So, Can You Hear Me? had a story and it held my attention.
Having said all this, Can You Hear Me? followed the usual Chibnall templates of lifting ideas from other stories and stitching them together. The two Eternals were taken straight from that underrated Peter Davison story Enlightenment and that 1983 story even got a namecheck: not, perhaps, a good idea as the casual viewer won’t get the reference and the fan who is reminded of the Davison era might be irritated by spotting the borrowing they’d previously missed. Stealing people’s nightmares is unoriginal; the prison in space is an old idea and a rejected Troughton script (we got The Krotons instead! Yay!); the whole tone and flavour of the plot was the lower key fantasy and whimsy of The Sarah Jane Adventures rather than the more epic Doctor Who. About 20 percent of the episode was soap opera without science fiction: why bother, when we can watch real soap operas if we want that stuff (and often with characters more convincing and engaging than Ryan, Yaz, and the other one)? Of course, it was to foreground the issue of the week – which thankfully was an issue that was mainly dramatized (not very well) rather than spoken by the Doctor in mile high neon letters – and this week’s issue is Mental Health Awareness. As someone who has had mental health issues, I found it crass and superficial. It was on the level of a daft mental health training day I attended as a teacher, where we were shown videos with the punchline, “If your mate is looking down, ask if he’s all right”. Funny thing, but that doesn’t usually cut it for the mentally ill. The Doctor’s handling of Graham’s man-to-Time Lord talk about cancer was crassly handled and out of character.
Yes, it was a watchable episode and I enjoyed it. No, I won’t be watching it again because it was far from being a classic. It was up there with, say, Fear Her and Battlefield – okay, watchable, enjoyable, not great. And this, dear readers, is the best that Mr Chibnall can offer.
I quite enjoyed villains tonight, especially Zellin and the name checking of the Guardians, Eternals, and the Celestial Toymaker. The finger thing was quite daft but hey, that might just be how these immortals roll. Once again, an interesting set up! Regarding the follow through — as we got deeper into the story, and the Doctor and co. were locked up, I figured with half the episode left, this was going to be one epic confrontation — a battle of wills, back and forth, trials and tribulations — no, she dispatches them quite quickly and remarkably easily. I won’t lie, this disappointed me but didn’t surprise me. It would have been nice to have a match up in the vein of the Fourth Doctor and Sutekh but that’s a lot to ask for. Probably an unreasonable ask.
Still had plenty of ep left, so we go to — Yaz hitchhiking 3 years previous. Seems like this was an attempt to start fleshing out Yaz’s character. I guess this was really a ‘fam’ episode, prepping us for their departure. Okay.
The presentation of what Graham and Ryan have waiting for them at home seems unimpressive compared to the universe, time, space, etc. — occasional chips and poker nights? Yaz has her family, but it seems like something’s not right there either. Some trouble with the folks? I really don’t know because I can’t understand her and her sister at all. It seems like they’d want to keep seeing the universe but then again, they never really get that excited about any of it, so I guess they’d rather go back for poker nights and chips. That’s okay too, I suppose.
Last but not least, now we have a better idea why after two years, the FAM doesn’t talk or open up to the Doctor. Graham lays bare his soul to her regarding his fear about his cancer coming back. She just stares at him like an idiot. This wasn’t Ryan asking for dating advice. Nor was this a topic that lends itself to her being her wacky, annoying self. I thought to myself, “Oh Chris, if ever there was a time for this incarnation to step up and show that these creatures are more than just wayward pets to her, to maybe, in some way, show a little bit of heart toward this person you’ve been traveling with all this time… now would be that moment.”
Nope, played for laughs.
Honestly, you know what? If that were me, I guess I would head back to the poker game. I currently think less of the Thirteenth Doctor than I did before.
NEXT: Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful.